The Documentary Archaeology of Late Medieval Europe

In recent years, research and teaching in the humanities has experienced a striking turn toward the material. The desire to study tangible things follows naturally upon an era of scholarship that has been oriented largely around the study of words and categories of thought. But it also tracks the changing preoccupations and concerns of ordinary people, for everyone who has lived through the last half-century has been intensely aware of the dramatic shifts in the profile of consumption in the United States, Europe, and in the developed world more generally. For all these reasons, the study of patterns of consumption has taken on a growing urgency in the university and the classroom. Funding agencies in the United States and in Europe have been instrumental in the process of encouraging museums and repositories of all sorts to digitize and present their collections to the public. In Europe, projects such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme, an online database of coins, dress fittings, and tools from England and Wales, are representative of the trends now sweeping across the world. Among the practitioners of material studies, however, there has been a growing realization that the increasing ease-of-access to information about tangible things, stemming from collections or archaeological excavations, has not been matched by a similar increase in the access to information about textual things, i.e. objects described in textual sources. The response to this growing need can be found in the practice of documentary archaeology, an approach to the study of material culture based on the serial analysis of things identified in documents.

DALME seeks to lay the foundations for a documentary archaeology of later medieval Europe, from 1250 to the early sixteenth century. This period, located at the outset of the modern global economy, saw significant accelerations in patterns of production and consumption as well as a dramatic expansion in markets and credit relations. Altogether, these changes altered the material world and transformed the relationships between people and things. At present, however, the materiality of the era is very little known outside the community of specialists.

Focusing on a corpus of household inventories—lists of household objects identified during legal proceedings—from a number of different cities and regions, the goal of DALME is to create an online database to make this collection and its elements accessible to scholars and members of the public. At the same time, our work on this collection will enable us to develop open standards and protocols that will contribute to the nascent practice of documentary archaeology. Although the use of documents has been central to the practice of historical archaeology for more than fifty years, no specialized standards have emerged to address the specificities of working with artifactual data originating from archival sources. As a result, household inventories and other documents have been published without the apparatus that would be necessary for a systematic study of the assemblages they contain.

Our core audience consists of scholars in the humanities and social sciences interested in late medieval and early modern Europe and the Americas. Using DALME, they will be able to query the collection in search of answers to questions such as these: What kinds of things did ordinary people begin to acquire and use in their homes in later medieval Europe? What sorts of meanings and values did they attach to these things? Are there detectable differences across gender or wealth divides, or between city and countryside? Where, in the household, did people make their principal investments? How were colors and materials integrated into the household? How did people respond to the marked changes in clothing fashion that distinguish this period?

Archaeologists, art historians, and other students of material culture use inventories extensively to study objects and materials and perform analyses on those data. Inventories are particularly valuable sources for archaeological work because the systematic biases that generate silences in the textual record are often quite different from the systematic biases that affect the survival of tangible things. Indeed, the comparison of the evidence from each of the two domains will make the systematic biases inherent in each readily apparent and subject to statistical analysis. Other users of DALME include scholars interested in clothing fashions, for inventories contain abundant evidence about the dating and distribution of fabric, cuts, and styles. Curators will be able to study the distribution of paintings, decorative arts, and furniture such as chests and coffers. Food historians will find evidence for patterns of diet, dining utensils, and lighting. Other potential subjects range from musical and scientific instruments to books, devotional objects, and pets. By virtue of offering an inter-regional collection, moreover, DALME transcends the regional focus that characterizes many existing studies.

The DALME database will also serve students and teachers. The wealth of information made available by DALME, and the research tools built around it, can serve as the basis for M.A. theses; the database has already been used successfully for research papers and class assignments. The interoperability and linked-data approach that the DALME database shares with initiatives such as the Pleiades Project will make the objects available to students, teachers, and the general public. In our experience, the general public responds with enthusiasm to humanities projects that bring to life objects from the past.